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Employers Split on Government Access to Smart Phones

Posted by Christopher Geehern on May 2, 2016 7:30:00 AM

A narrow majority of Massachusetts employers believes that technology companies should help law-enforcement authorities unlock smart phones and other electronic devices as part of criminal investigations.

Phonesecurity.jpgFifty percent of the employers who responded to a new AIM survey, which was included in AIM’s monthly Business Confidence Index, side with the government in its recent dustup with Apple over access to the phone of a suspect in the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Thirty-seven percent believe companies should not help the government access electronic devices, while 13 percent are undecided.

Even for those who favor technology companies helping the government, the question appears to be an agonizing one.

“Before the ‘Age of Terrorism’ I would have answered ‘No.’ However, today I must answer ‘Yes,’ but with this caveat - tech companies should do the actual access themselves. They should not reveal the software or other techniques that they might use to do so to the law enforcement agencies, and only based on a warrant or court order,” wrote one employer.

A second saw the issue differently:  “I can very much understand Apple’s reluctance to create software to get information from their phones. First, having the information in the hands of the government. Second, Apple was probably concerned about the effects on their product in the market once customers understood that Apple was willing to allow the government to access any phone.”

The conflict between Apple and the Justice Department flared in February when a federal magistrate judge in California ordered the Silicon Valley company to help unlock the smartphone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, a gunman in the December shooting in San Bernardino that killed 14 people. Apple opposed the order, saying that “compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk.”

The government announced in March that it had found a way to unlock an iPhone without help from Apple, but suggested that the broader battle over access to digital data from devices is not over.

“It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties, or through the court system when cooperation fails,” Melanie Newman, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, told The New York Times.

Employers who responded to the AIM survey said technology companies should provide access to devices only under court order.

“Access should be based on a judge and court warrant issued only under extreme circumstances and sealed from public scrutiny. Access should be performed by an Apple employee acting as a mutual agent of Apple and the Justice Department so that proprietary software information is not disclosed to the FBA or to other parties,” one AIM member wrote.

Still other employers suggested that iPhone kerfuffle distracts from the broader issue of electronic security faced by employers in all industries.

“I would prefer to have the government and technology companies working on more ways to keep our records and information secure rather than worry about tech companies creating backdoor keys for the government. This unchecked increase in the number of hackers and info/tech piracy cases is very unsettling. I haven't seen any real effort to address this aspect of security,” one employer wrote.

Topics: Technology, Privacy

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